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A representative of the Filipino government was in Las Vegas last week to file suit against the 5th largest mining company in the world. Placer Dome was once a major stockholder in a copper mine on a South Pacific island where it mined more than $1-billion of the metal. The suit seeks reparations for widespread environmental consequences that are being felt on the island as well as clean up of what island residents call an imminent danger. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
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REYES: I am the governor.
PLASKON: Carmencita Reyes, the governor of an island 96 miles south of Manila in the Philippines, was here last week to tell Las Vegans of an area that was once like paradise.
REYES: Our coral reefs use to be like Tubataja, some of the best in the world, but now they are all covered in tailings.
PLASKON: The mine tailing are not only in the ocean but in a river too. According to a may 2000 United States Geological Survey report, mine tailings in Marinduque are causing water to become quote 'quite acidic' with high concentrations of metals including copper, iron, aluminum, manganese and zinc. The report says sediments from these metals are detrimental to fish and invertebrates living on the river bottom.
REYES: We used to have the coconut crabs they are extinct now, and shrimp is no more, no more shrimps, no more crabs.
PLASKON: Its not just the aquatic life that's in trouble says Reyes. So are some of the islands 217-thousand residents.
REYES: Using the water have recognized as having cancer of the rectum and we were advised by the health department not to use the water even for swimming purposes.
PLASKON: She directed the audience to photos of island residents with grotesque sores on their legs - people who work in the river. A lot of these toxic tailings were released in 1996 when a plug at the bottom of a mining pit failed, spilling 53 million cubic feet of ground up rock into a major river through the capital city. That's when the majority share-holder sold its interest in the mining company.
REYES: It has abandoned us, nowhere to be found in Marinduque or any other place in the Philippines, leaving us as desolate as ever unspeakable poverty.
PLASKON: The USGS report says that other mine tailings dams left behind need to be monitored so that they do not burst as well. A 2003 New Scientist article says it would take the equivalent of a line of dump trucks encircling the earth to clean it up. Walter Scott is a Texas attorney that works regularly in the Philippines.
SCOTT: We have been given a mandate. Find Placer Dome and sue it where it can be found.
PLASKON: He found the mining company Placer Dome operating here, in Nevada and filed suit seeking un-specified damages. Though Placer Dome is a Canadian-based company Neil Peck of Colorado, also working on the suit, explains why they filed here.
PECK: It is important to Nevada because a company has been here for four decades mining on a vast scale taking out substantial natural resources and in exchange for that it has made an agreement to subject itself to the jurisdiction of the state.
PLASKON: In 2004 Placer Dome derived 17-percent of it's 6-billion dollars in revenue from Nevada. Placer Dome Investor Relation's Manager Megan Brown responded to the suit, saying it spent more than 30 million dollars and 18 months monitoring the island after the spill and determined there were not severe impacts.
BROWN: At the time that the incident happened we stepped forward and took some steps to contain the problem we compensated those effected. We acted diligently to be a positive presence on the island in the absence of any other party who was willing to provide the work and funding.
PLASKON: Filipino law wouldn't allow a foreign company to own the national resources entirely, so Brown says Placer Dome isn't entirely responsible. It only held a 39 percent stake of the Marinduque Company, which was listed on the Filipino stock exchange.
BROWN: Most of our operations, we are the owner and at least a 51 percent share-holder.
PLASKON: Texas attorney Water Scott contends that Placer Dome was in control of Marinduque mines.
SCOTT: To answer your question very specifically, in fact Placer Dome designed constructed, operated and controlled the agency from day one. They had their own resident managers, if you were to ask the governor, Marinduquens had a pick and shovel role, everything was done by Placer Dome.
PLASKON: This suit comes at a time when international mining companies are increasingly operating off-shore.
BROWN: More an more the gold is not being found in the first world.
PLASKON: Brown, of Placer Dome said her company conducts a thorough risk analysis on each country before operating there to ensure it meets environmental regulations. Placer Dome has 16 mines in 7 countries. Last year it derived 64 percent of gold revenue from mining in the US, Cnada and Australia. 36 percent came from operations in Tansania, Chile, Africa and Papua New Guinea. Texas attorney Scott says international mining operations are falling under greater scrutiny.
SCOTT: Have we been contacted with respect to what is going on in Papua New Guinea? Yes frankly have we been contacted with what is going on with Newmont in Indonesia, the answer is yes, the bottom line is that a very large spot light is being placed on very large mining companies when they are trying to move off shore. So what they can't do in Canada and the United States they can do off-shore.
PLASKON: The suit is similar to one against multinational mining company, Newmont in Indonesia. American Richard Ness is director the Denver-based company's local subsidiary. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $68,000 if convicted of dumping mercury and arsenic-laced pollutants into an Indonesian bay.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR